Meet the Duo Behind NorBlack NorWhite, the South Asian Streetwear Brand Shaking up the Biz
by Kiran Gill
Main photo: Che Kothari
What happens when two first-generation girls from Toronto, both with a burning love for ‘90s hip-hop and Michael Jackson, move back to their motherland, India? For Amrit Kumar and Mriga Kapadiya, the forces behind clothing brand and creative platform NorBlack NorWhite, the answer was to dive headfirst into the rich textile traditions of South Asia to create clothes that combined simple silhouettes with impeccable fabrics and a modern sensibility.
By fusing their Canadian upbringing with their South Asian roots, Amrit and Mriga created not just a fashion line, but rather a creative hub of the future. NorBlack NorWhite is a space where color, cloth, and culture are constantly being re-mixed for the present context. From their ‘fits to their pop-ups to their music videos, Amrit and Mriga are more than just designers — they are creators, collaborators, and activists. The duo is doing their part to tackle the remnants of global colonialism head-on while also reminding us not only that the everyday political, but that nothing is ever just black and white. Part anthropological study, part art, and part fashion: NorBlack NorWhite is where it’s at.
We interviewed Amrit and Mriga to discover what makes them tick, where they find inspiration, why they create, and what’s next for them.
Milk Makeup: When and how did you two first meet?
NorBlack NorWhite: We’re good friends both from the diverse city of Toronto, where we first noticed each other because we were both rocking our mama’s shawls and because we love to laugh a lot! We happened to have a similar eye and aesthetic of remixing traditional Indian textiles in a current context. We also found that we shared a similar sense of the way we create, the style in which we work, and a longing to learn about indigenous communities and art forms.
Photo: Akshay Sharma
MMU: What were you doing before NorBlack NorWhite was created?
NBNW: We both studied disciplines outside of the design realm (Mriga with a Bachelors in Business and Amrit with a Bachelors in Psychology and Retail). This led us to working in advertising for a couple of years right after university, but we were constantly feeding our souls in other ways. We’re very visual people and got involved with design and the art community in Toronto about 10 years ago organizing art festivals, managing musicians, and reworking vintage pieces.
MMU: After moving to Mumbai, how did the idea for NorBlack NorWhite develop? Did you two dream of becoming designers?
NBNW: NorBlack NorWhite evolved as a natural progression of us wanting to work together and explore the country. We were hungry to learn and create. When we moved to Bombay in 2009, we spent the first few months getting to know the city and traveling around the country. We knew we wanted to exercise our learnings and apply our energy into the world of artistic communities in Bombay. It was after we visited an Indian non-profit dedicated to preserving Kutchi indigenous textile that we subsequently gained the respect of its founder and our mentor, which allowed us to develop a greater understanding of what it is that we set out to do.
NorBlack NorWhite was born out of our desire to explore India through its textiles, art forms, and handicrafts. It pays respect to these traditions while making them relevant to our present cultural context. We want to challenge the popular notion of what ‘Made in India’ means to the world while documenting the process of creation and exploring the cultural landscape of India through its textiles, creating art, collaborating, and sharing stories. NorBlack NorWhite was conceived as being part art, part anthropology, and part fashion.
Photo: Fabian Guerrero
MMU: As members of the diaspora who have relocated to India, what was the transition from Toronto to Bombay and now Delhi like? How do you reconcile your Canadian and Indian identities?
NBNW: We were exposed to Indian textiles through our mothers’ and grandmothers’ wardrobes growing up in Toronto and were inspired by them without really being aware of it. We grew up in schools where immigrants were the majority and ‘90s R&B and hip-hop were a big part of life. We grew up around such diversity and we’re happy our work is an honest representation of that. Many of our friends come from similar backgrounds and explore aspects of diaspora lifestyles like growing up going to basement fam-jams or grocery shopping at Knob Hill Farms. We naturally wanted to celebrate all of it and infuse it into how we make decisions, what we value, and our personal aesthetic. We really appreciate our access to Toronto, which we feel is home to some of the most diverse communities in North America. We are also super fortunate to be surrounded by an amazing community of artists in Toronto, NY, the Caribbean, and India, with an ongoing mutual inspiration that comes from identifying with each other’s similar stories of being from immigrant families.
We’ve realized that there’s always so much more to learn. It’s interesting to become more aware of our immigrant background and to answer questions of why and how some of our ancestors made certain decisions, and understand the journey of how our families landed where they did in Toronto. And it came around full circle through a sort of reverse migration for us — we appreciate Toronto for all the things we didn’t really understand until we left, and we find strength in the lessons we learn by living in and navigating India.
MMU: When I look at NorBlack NorWhite, I see more than just a clothing line. I see a family of collaborators and a space for inclusion and creativity. What does NorBlack NorWhite mean to you?
NBNW: Yay, then you understand why we cringe when people call us fashion designers. This platform is our precious baby and a piece of our hearts; it’s a place to question and to experiment with our identities and journey. We are very grateful to be able to create the cultural space that we craved growing up as immigrant brown girls who didn’t resonate with not being brown enough in some spaces or too brown in other spaces. Industry people have given us a lot of unsolicited advice — to use white models in our lookbooks, to tone it down, to focus on design and not culture. We’ve doubted ourselves many times along the way and questioned the idea of creating more physical material in a world overflowing with stuff. But the feeling we get from seeing our peoples come together, with purpose and intention, making beautiful art with helping hands and pushing the status quo — we created this together, and this space is important and needed. Diversity ain’t a trend. It’s the past, present, and future, and we’re here for it.
MMU: Walk us through your creative process from inspiration to final product.
NBNW: Our inspiration can come from really anything: What flowers we are in love with, what foods we are exposed to, what environment we are in, what travels we’ve done, and what people are influencing us. We didn’t go to a formal fashion school, so our process is pretty raw and rooted in our intuition; we feel something and then build up from there. Sometimes it’s based on drawings, and sometimes illustrator renders, while others times its straight up physically pairing fabrics and playing dress up. We make a ton of mistakes along the way and don’t have the resources for massive sampling budgets, so we try to be clear and clean with our ideas. We aren’t into the concept of indulging in unnecessary processes just for the sake of fulfilling creative pleasures. We work with raw materials, so we have to be resourceful and not wasteful!
Photo: Fabian Guerrero
MMU: NorBlack NorWhite has a unique voice and point of view. Has it always been that way or has it grown and evolved as you two have matured?
NBNW: It grows as we grow, so the voice is us! We as founders are intertwined with the language, visual aesthetic, and presentation of NorBlack NorWhite, and it’s growing as we do. When we look back at the beginning stages, we look and feel like such babies, and it’s sometimes embarrassing to look so far back, but it’s a real check on how things keep evolving!
MMU: There is a strong collaborative nature to the work you produce. How do these collaborations come about? How did you build this global network?
NBNW: By building real relationships. We take our friendships seriously; we are loyalists like that and we’ve hosted many artists, as well as old and new friends, when they visit India or when we travel. It’s amazing what the internet can do, too, as we have fan girl’d on artists or vice versa and built relationships that way. When we meet IRL it’s like we’ve been friends for a long time. If we are on the same wavelength emotionally, spiritually, and creatively, we are pretty much destined to make magic happen. We only work with people we trust, love, and want to support, and that goes for everything from building out shoots to our daily team to any collaboration for that matter. We just have to see eye to eye on certain values, ways of navigating and working with each other, and of course, speak a similar creative language.
Photo: Che Kothari
MMU: You have previously described “every day as political.” How do politics and decolonization play a role in NorBlack NorWhite?
NBNW: Every day is political. The way the bank manager speaks to us as female entrepreneurs, the manner in which Muslim male artisans communicate with us in a very Hindu-ruled India, the way we are perceived at a New York trade show as brown girls in a very white industry — those are all real levels to our existence. It’s important for us to share that journey and also understand how the world works and how we are doing our best to contribute to it responsibly in our own way. We’ve been hit up by large corporations multiple times, which we’ve kindly had to decline. No matter how much money they dangle, these conversations have reinforced the levels of exploitation and ridiculous demands made by the companies with the most resources. We are lucky to have the language, knowledge, and experience to say NO.
As long as we exist, we have a responsibility — there is no hiding from that.
MMU: What advice do you have for young designers?
NBNW: Be REAL with your resources. There’s a reason there’s a common theme of well-resourced people starting fashion labels — all the celebs and socialites who seem to launch labels by the minute. Materials and production are real, tangible costs. We started with very limited resources, so we had to be creative every step of the way. We wore and still wear multiple hats and use everything we have, including working with all our fams and friends (who happen to be super talented, thank goddess) to get things done. Designing is super fun and is where a lot of the art lies, but the creativity can’t stop when it comes to producing the designs. Production is a massive part of running a label, so if you aren’t about that aspect, you need to manifest an amazing person that can handle that part so you can focus on the designing and creating, or else things can feel sour real quick. With the help of the internet to spread the word across the globe, there is great potential for independent distribution, even through your own online shop, so starting your own label is definitely much more accessible. Since there are thousands of other labels in the world, the challenge is really being focused on your purpose and intentions, transparency in your process — because we really don’t need to contribute more junk in this world — and being true to your process, practice, and voice, which might be the golden ticket that makes your work stand out.
Photo: Fabian Guerrero
MMU: Music plays a big role in your inspiration. Who are your favorite artists and what are your favorite music videos?
NBNW: All artistic practices influence each other. We grew up heavily influenced by the whole vibe of ‘90s R&B and Hip Hop, from the video sets to the styling. Even though the culture of music video making has evolved, it’s sometimes hard to stay inspired because of how fast things are moving. We are lucky to have musicians, performers, and artists make up a big part of our following and feel excited to wear NorBlack NorWhite because they feel alive in it and it doesn’t really look like a lot of other things out there. Fashion and music go hand-in-hand and it’s kind of nuts to see how many brands have blown up because they’ve aligned with musicians on the same wavelength. When you think about some of the most iconic performers, the songs are top of mind and but their style also makes such an impression.
Some of our favorite bigger artists are Michael Jackson, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Aaliyah, Sade, TLC, Missy Elliot, Diana Ross, Grace Jones, RD Burman, Kishore Kumar, RiRi! Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Bjork, Chronixx, A Tribe Called Red, Protoje, Janet Jackson, Solange, P. Diddy & Family, The Carters, and the list goes on. There are so many independent artists that keep coming up by the day, but that’s for another time!
Some of our favorite music videos: Remember The Time by Michael Jackson, Gimme Some More by Missy Elliot & Busta Rhymes, It’s Oh So Quiet by Bjork, and Cranes In The Sky by Solange.
MMU: What’s next for NorBlack NorWhite?
NBNW: Lots of collaborations in various mediums. Can’t announce it just yet, but we are doing our first athletic collab & sneaker drop soon! We’re also dropping our first NorBlack NorWhite merchandise line at Sole DXB in Dubai in December. We recently completed our first ever pop up in Brooklyn, too, and the response was unreal and intensified our hearty feelings for meeting the people who support us with their energy and cash. We’re hoping to create some more of this magic in London, Sri Lanka, and Bombay.
Photo: Akshay Sharma
MMU: What is your guiding mantra in life and with NorBlack NorWhite?
NBNW: Dig deeper, create waves, speak your voice, take your time, stay focused, and go with the flow. Be unapologetic while creating in kindness and assertiveness. It’s okay to make a bunch of mistakes along the way, ‘cause they’re the truest lessons, so be kind to yourself. Don’t take bullshit from bullshitters ’cause there’s a lot of them out there. We’re here to take up space and make room for all those people who identify with being part of multiple cultures. LIVE IN COLOUR!
Adornment, Hair & MUA — Nena Soul Fly
Models — @lamentedeasami, @kohinoorgasm, @brindanotbrenda
Adornment, Hair & MUA — Nena Soul Fly
Models — @tristanreynolds, @hoodprofet, @brindanotbrenda, @lamentedeasami, @ni_maiz, @kohinoorgasm
Model — Ixquel
Adornment, Hair & MUA — Nena Soul Fly
Model — @kohinoorgasm
Model — @mghmghmghm